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Gently Used

by Cathy Cruise

Honorable Mention, 2019 Fiction Collections

 
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It was her daughter who’d begged for a guinea pig. For Christmas, from Santa. And since it wasn’t an overly expensive request (although at the time Claire had no idea how costly it would prove to be), she’d said maybe. Because her daughter still believed, and because Claire figured Hannah’s faith wouldn’t last long if she didn’t get a guinea pig when she’d painstakingly scrawled it at the top of her Christmas list, after looking up how to spell guinea.

She’d been sure Paul would say no. But sometimes she forgot how helpless Hannah could make him, and he’d unexpectedly agreed. So, even though Claire sneezed and saw red welts appear on her wrists whenever she touched the animals in those glass kiosks at pet stores, she searched Craigslist in mid-December for a guinea pig.

She often bought “gently used” items from Craigslist—barstools, a TV stand, a giant Barbie playhouse when Hannah was little, a couch so old and worn they called it The Maneater because you had to grab onto an arm to yank yourself out of it. That one she should have turned down, but she had a bad habit of feeling pressured to buy once she was face-to-face with a seller.

On Craigslist, someone was selling a guinea pig, cage, food, water bottle, and pigloo (whatever that was) for fifty dollars. She emailed the seller, who lived in Washington, DC, and asked if they could meet halfway. Ten minutes later, the response read: “Petco in Tysons? You’ll need more supplies anyway. Friday at 7?”

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It was an oddly warm night for December, so balmy Claire rolled her window down on her way to Tysons Corner, weaving past strip malls and plazas mobbed with Christmas shoppers. The seller had told her to look for a blue SUV with DC plates, but Claire didn’t see a car like that when she pulled into the Petco lot. Idling in her parking spot, watching traffic on Route 7 crawl past, brake lights indistinguishable from the flashing Christmas bulbs stippling the road, it dawned on her she had no idea who she’d be meeting—man, woman, serial killer, saint. She decided to head inside the store, and straight to the Cavy Cove section.

Hay, food pellets, orchard grass, berry nibblers, and cedar chips lined the shelves. Just looking at the array exhausted her. But lately everything required effort. You’d think by the time her daughter reached ten , well beyond the years of needing Claire so fiercely, she’d feel rested. But the fact that Hannah managed just fine without her now only seemed to sap the last of her strength.

“She’s growing up.” Paul would shrug, when she’d mention it. “What did you expect?”

Not this, she thought, picking up a Super Comfy Pet Harness and Leash (a leash, for a guinea pig?). She hadn’t expected this drained, inadequate sensation. As if, now that everything was winding down, something else desperately needed to start.

“Excuse me?”

Claire turned toward a faded black t-shirt, leather jacket, and the most piercing blue eyes she’d ever seen on a human. The word “human” actually occurred to her, because the eyes bore a real similarity to her neighbor’s Husky dog and its frosty stare.

“You Claire?” the man asked.

“I…yes. Hi.” She stuck out her hand.

“Nick,” he said. “Figured you’d be in here. Sorry I’m late. I don’t really know my way around here.”

His dark hair was on the longer side, and his eyes darted restlessly about the store as he squeezed her fingers.

“I was just…” Claire slid her hand away and swept her palm toward the shelves. “There’s so much to choose from.”

“Ah, you don’t need most of this crap. Here.” He reached past her to grab a suitcase-sized bag of hay, which he tossed into the air, caught, and tucked under his arm.

“Buy in bulk and you won’t have to run to the store so much. I brought you a bag of pellets. That’s their diet—hay and pellets every day. And fresh veggies. That was the hardest to keep up with—I mean, I usually have lettuce around, but they can’t eat iceberg. Seemed like I was always running out for cilantro or parsley. Course, you’re probably a real cook. Keep a fully stocked fridge?”

Claire nodded, not to answer, but to stall while deciding what was happening. Was he hitting on her? Ridiculous. All he’d asked was what was in her refrigerator, so really, where was this coming from? It was the way he asked it, she decided, with one blue eye winking…was it winking? She couldn’t see the other side of his face, so maybe it was only a blink.

“Doesn’t your wife cook?” she asked.

He grunted. “That’s why I have the pigs. Divorced. Overindulging my daughter. Said she misses the cat too much when she’s at my place, so―” He shrugged. “But she lost interest in them.”

“Them?”

“Oh. Yeah!” He chuckled. His laugh was throaty, infectious. “I was going to let her keep one, but after you answered the ad she said she didn’t want to split them up. She’s right. They need a partner or they go ape shit or something. Get so lonely they could croak. So yeah, two. No extra charge.”

Claire swallowed. Paul would love this news.

“You’ll need this too,” he said, lifting a bag of cedar bedding, nearly as large as the first one.

“Oh,” Claire said, “I was reading about that online. How paper bedding is best? More absorbent or...”

“Nah. Look, this is only eight bucks. Paper’s twelve.”

He walked toward the register, and even though Claire had planned to pick up a few more things, he continued talking to her over his shoulder, so she followed.

 “You said in your email they’re for you daughter, right? She’s going to love them. Mine did. At least for a few months. If she’d learn to clean a cage I wouldn’t be here.”

Claire nodded, although he couldn’t see her, since she was behind him.

He dropped the bags on the counter and stood watching while Claire paid. Something about the look on his face made her remember she had to pay him too. She fished in her purse for the fifty dollars she’d withdrawn at the bank on the way and handed it to him.

He thanked her, folded the bills and stuffed them in his back pocket. Then he picked up her bags again, moved to the exit, and held the door open.

Claire walked past him, suddenly worried she might trip or forget how to walk properly. “That’s my car there,” she said, pointing to her dented red minivan, parked beside what she assumed was his Jeep Cherokee. She opened the back of the van and moved some things out of the way to make room: an umbrella, a pink pool noodle, an old towel, a set of stray earbuds.

Beside her, he opened the back of the SUV and slid out a large, white cage. Two furry creatures sat inside, completely still except for their noses, which nervously twitched in the fresh air. One was a smooth white and brown, the other a mottled black.

“They’re cute,” she said. But really, she was startled by their size. They looked like small loaves of bread. “The ones in the pet store were tiny.”

“Pet stores sell babies. These guys are two years old. That black one’s Henry. The white is Theodore. Course you’ll probably change the names.”

“Yes,” she said sadly, because how could she tell Hannah Santa had already named them? It was a shame though. Henry and Theodore seemed just right.

He placed the cage in the back of her car. Wadding up the towel, he stuck it on one side, then bent the pool noodle in half and wedged it on the other. “There,” he said. “They won’t slide around now.”

“Thank you.” She closed the hatch and turned toward him. A breeze lifted her hair, light and mild as spring.

“Crazy, huh?” he said. “This weather?”

“Really strange.”

They both turned toward the main road, looking out at the thick line of cars curving into the distance, barely moving. “Looks worse than when I got here,” he said. “Sorry. I guess meeting near the mall was stupid. Forgot about the Christmas shoppers.” He checked his watch. “If I hit the road now I’ll be starved before I get home. Any place we could grab a bite?”

Hearing the “we” made her think he must have someone in his car. Claire glanced inside, but saw it was empty.

“Pigs’ll be okay. Even if it was cold, they’d be fine. Some people keep them outdoors.” He grinned. “See? Have dinner with me and I’ll tell you more about guineas than you ever wanted to know.”

Claire looked about, shoving her hands in her coat pockets. “Well…there’s a Mexican place around the corner. Did you want—”

“Yeah, I see it. Meet you there.” He ducked inside his car and started the engine. 

For a moment she stood watching his taillights glow in the darkness. Then she got inside her van and drove to Fiesta Grill.

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She parked in front of the restaurant, checked her makeup in the mirror, and dialed Paul. Traffic’s at a standstill, she would say. Might as well do some shopping.

But he answered in that gruff, annoyed tone. “Hello? Hang on. Hannah, I’ll be right there!” Then to Claire, “Holy crap, she’s a diva tonight. Okay, what’s wrong?”

She drew a breath. “I’m having dinner with the man we bought the pigs from. He’s going to give me all the details about them.”

For a moment he was silent, and she felt a trickle of satisfaction.

“Them?” Paul asked. “What do you mean them?”

“Oh. Yeah. Well, he gave us another—for free.”

“What?”

“He says they have to have a partner or they go ape shit. They could die.”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake, Claire.” Another pause. “So what am I supposed to feed her?”

A minute later she was inside the restaurant, walking across the stained wooden floors, past the scuffed table tops. The bar area was packed, but Nick sat in a booth along the far wall. He was on the phone too, and when she sat down she heard him say, “And that’s why I never walk into a meeting with that thought in mind.” He belted out a throaty laugh, said goodbye, then hung up. “Sorry,” he said. “Work.”

“What do you do?”

“Bartender.”

Claire looked over her menu while she absorbed this idea. What kind of meetings did bartenders have?

“I sort of organize this community contest,” he said. “World’s Fastest Bartender? Ever heard of it?”

She shook her head. 

The waiter came for their orders. Nick asked for a margarita and chili rellenos. Claire closed her menu and said she’d have the same.

When the waiter left, Nick slid off his jacket and spread his arms across the back of the booth. “So,” he said, “thanks for joining me. Eating alone’s not really my thing.”

“I’ll bet,” she said, startling herself.

He grinned. “What’s that supposed to mean?” A deep buzz sounded from under the table. He took his phone from his jacket pocket but didn’t answer it. “Girlfriend. Likes to check up on me.” He put the phone away. “It gets tiresome. I mean, she’s great. But I don’t need a babysitter, you know? She doesn’t need to be a babysitter. Why waste all that energy on suspicion? Why not put a little faith into someone instead?”

His eyes, a muted gray under the dim lights, were still oddly intense.

“What about you?” he asked. “Married? He like guinea pigs?”

The waiter appeared with their drinks, set them on napkins, and was gone again.

Claire lifted her glass, licked salt from the edge and took a sip. It was tangy and sweet. Perfect.

The door opened, and two young women headed toward the bar.

“Someday I’m going to meet the love of my life,” Nick said, watching the women walk past. “When I’m old and gray, I guess. Hell, I’m nearly there. I’m ready to make a connection. Just not with someone who’s trying too hard.”

At the bar, one of the women held up a bill, waving it like a flag.

“See? Like that,” he said. “When I’m working bar and you want a drink? Wave money at me, snap your fingers, whistle—I’m gonna ignore you. But stand and wait. Smile.” He grinned. “I’m already on my way.”

Claire took another sip, then set her drink down. “You’re charming.”

He nodded. “It’s a defect.”

“Not necessarily.”

“No?” He winked. A definite wink. “Maybe you’re easily charmed.”

She met his gaze. “They don’t bite, do they?”

“What?”

“The pigs. That’s the main thing. They can’t bite my daughter. My husband would freak.”

“Nah. They’re good boys.”

“What else?”

He rubbed his chin, holding his fingers like a gun. “They love carrots. Apples. But they shouldn’t have too many treats.”

“What else?”

He drained his glass and set it down. “What else do you want?”

“Excuse me.” The waiter was beside them now, setting Claire’s plate on the table. “This is hot. Please be careful.” He set Nick’s plate down and walked away.

Neither of them moved.

“You’re pretty,” Nick said.

Eyes darker now. Had the lights dimmed?

“Look,” he said, “You’re probably not … you don’t seem the type. But hell, it’s late. We’re kinda stuck here.” He chuckled. “And you can’t blame a guy for trying.”

Claire gazed over his head to a clock on the wall. Nearly nine. If she were home she’d be getting Hannah ready for bed, getting herself ready just after, maybe watching TV or reading a bit before nodding off. But here, now, she wasn’t tired. In fact, she felt a stirring—something groggy, unsteady, but slowly coming to life.

She looked down at her chili relleno, red and white, bubbling in sauce. She’d never had one before. Claire picked up her fork, thinking, there’s always a first time.

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Back home, nearly midnight, Claire set the cage by the front door. In the morning, before Hannah woke, she would take it to a neighbor who’d agreed to pig sit until Christmas Eve.

Upstairs, she checked on her daughter, who lay sideways in her top bunk, covers off, a dozen stuffed animals scattered about the blankets. Claire moved to her own room next, expecting to find Paul asleep already. But he wasn’t there. She went back downstairs, and at the landing, noticed a soft glow from the den. The Christmas tree, left to burn, no doubt, unless she shut it off. But this light flickered and waved, and she noticed a smoky smell.

At the fireplace, Paul was stoking the flames, and turned when he heard her come in. “This thing is a monster,” he said.

For a minute, she thought he meant the fire. But then she saw the white guinea pig, cradled in his arm like a baby.

“That’s Theodore,” she said.

“Theodore? Seriously?” Paul put the poker back in its stand and reached up to the mantle. He handed her a glass of wine. “Thought we’d have a fire tonight.”

Now she could hear Christmas music, playing softly on Paul’s ancient stereo, the one she’d been pleading with him to replace with an iHome. She could find one on Craigslist, no problem.

Claire took the glass from him. “What’s all this?”

He sat down in the leather chair by the fireplace and put a pillow on the floor.

She settled into the spot, and he placed the pig on her lap. Claire stroked the animal, looking closely at it for the first time. Theodore’s fur was sleek, with reddish brown patches. He closed his eyes contentedly as she rubbed the bridge of his nose.

Paul’s hands squeezed her shoulders, thumbs tracing circles, pressing at all the right spots. “Should I be worried?” he asked.

“About what?”

“You. Out to dinner with some guy. Getting home so late.”

She stared into the fire, at the flames impossibly lit with orange, yellow, blue. On the mantle above sat photos of Hannah, first as a baby, then in jeans and bare feet, the sweet, goofy smile of adolescence slanted across her face.

“Traffic was at a standstill,” she said.

She rubbed her cheek against her shoulder, over the spot where Nick had kissed her. After he’d apologized, after she’d declined his offer to go to the Hyatt down the road, after he’d made her take her fifty dollars back. I’m an asshole, he’d said. And then, again, You can’t blame a guy for trying.

She stroked the guinea pig beneath his chin. Someday I’m going to meet the love of my life, she thought. Theodore sank his teeth into her thumb.

Claire snatched her hand away.

“What’s wrong?” Paul asked.

There was no blood. Not even a mark. “Nothing,” she said.

“Hey,” he said. “Tired? Time for bed?”

It was. But the fire was pretty, the wine soothing, Paul’s touch sure and steady. She wanted to hold on to all of it, to let this night sink into her bones.

“Not yet,” she said. She stroked Theodore’s nose again, which he seemed to prefer. He closed his eyes. “I guess we should have bought them at the pet store after all. They have babies there. Little ones.”

“Nah,” he said. “We did good.”

Claire’s finger still smarted from the bite. But really, what would she have done if Nick had told her the truth, with the pigs already in her car, Christmas days away? She might always wonder, as people tend to do, what she could have done differently, what other choices she could have made. But just think how much more it could have cost her.

end of story

© 2020, Cathy Cruise Go to top